Treating unequals equally is unjust

Treating all students equally is unfair and unwise, argues science-fiction writer Jerry Pournelle on Chaos Manor.  Schools should educate bright students for higher education and “teach the others stuff that will be useful to them in their actual future lives.”

Pournelle recalls his early days in the aerospace industry.

. . . Boeing could in those days count on the Seattle public school system to deliver workers capable of learning to do useful work. There would be failures, but in general, high school graduates could be taken into the work force and taught skills. They didn’t have to learn to read or to do elementary math, they understood the concept of measurement, and they could generally be relied on to have something approaching satisfactory work habits.

Commenter Margaret Ball agrees that a college-prep education means “years of pure hell” for some children. One daughter, who suffered in school, is now a sweet, energetic, “amazingly good” employee at a nursery school.  The other was a high achiever whose school  “wasted hours of her life making her mess around with construction paper and shoeboxes making dioramas to illustrate scenes in a book instead of just letting her write a book report.”

Pournelle’s followup, responding to Bill Gates’ call for education to serve as an equalizer, drew this comment:

I was born in 1969 in Flint, Michigan and got to see this first hand in a hyper-intense environment. In the beginning of my educational career it was all about options: I could go on to become a welder or an electrician if I wanted to. GM/Flint collapsed in 1980. By the time I had graduated high school (1987) the guidance counselors preached endlessly about the fact that manufacturing jobs were gone, and vocational schools were closing quickly to suit. Everything was about retraining factory workers to become computer programmers, because no-one should be flipping burgers in their 30?s, right? Completely missing the fact that we still need electricians and welders.

. . . My son — now 18 — will . . .  take some community-college level courses to fill out his vocational training but that’s it. He’s a bright boy, but doesn’t have the work ethic or studious nature to learn for learning’s sake. He doesn’t want to. College-prep high school was awful for him (B- averages, and he hated it), but there were few alternatives in a district where 97% of the HS graduates were expected to go on to college. My son would have been the brightest electrician or best mechanic you could hire, but alas, it’ll take him years to get the experiences he should have gotten in school while learning Advanced English Composition.

“Injustice consists of treating equals unequally and treating unequals equally,” Pournelle writes. “Our school system is designed to be unjust.”

Pournelle’s wife is a reading teacher.

Via Instapundit.

About Joanne


  1. There’s a fairly elitist mindset to the idea that all students must go to college, and that anything else is sub-par. It tends to play well with those who spend their careers coming up with things to sound good so as to justify their paychecks while not actually contributing anything.

    It’s a common theme of late which is argued, among other places, in Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soulcraft”. Skilled blue-collar labor is not dumb labor; it requires problem-solving skills and thinking of a type which is beyond the capacity of many graduate students, particularly outside of the hard sciences.

    Even if everything we use were to be manufactured somewhere else, it still needs to be installed, serviced, and maintained here. There are many people who like the idea of being able to look at their work at the end of the day and have physical evidence that they actually accomplished something. Many more also simply want to work to make money to live and support a family; the type of work doesn’t necessarily matter.

    Every student has the capacity for excellence. The question simply needs to be asked “in what?”

  2. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    Diane Ravitch has written cogently in the past about the absurdity of “college prep courses for all” at the high school level. Of course, the geniuses of the Los Angeles School Board, and many other districts, mandated this type of curriculum a few years ago and–shockingly–dropout rates increased. In their naive attempt to level the playing field for the mostly Latino and Black students in the district to address the “achievement gap”, they have actually accomplished quite the opposite. ( Of course, Asian immigrant students do not count as a minority, despite being an actual numerical minority in most cities–oh, the irony!) Call it elitism and snobbery–there is nothing inherently superior about a college graduate, versus a trade school graduate or an apprentice. There is nothing inherently more valuable in being a doctor, lawyer or sociologist than in being a plumber, electrician or mechanic. The latter are certainly superior to educrats who sit on school boards and engage in (usually leftist) social engineering. “Nuff said.

  3. greeneyeshade says:

    Diane Ravitch has also written cogently, in “Left Back,” about how the idea of differentiated curricula played into America’s race, ethnic and class prejudices. “… The practice of assigning youngsters to various curriculum tracks satisfied different constituencies as well: conservatives thought that it was inefficient to offer an academic education to all children (their own excepted), while liberals believed that this was an appropriate response to the differing needs and abilities of individual children (as long as their own children were in the academic track.)” In the same book, she quotes William C. Bagley, an opponent of the Progressives: “… Hitherto in our national life we have proceeded on the assumption that no one has the omniscience to pick out the future hewers of wood and drawers of water — at least not when the candidates for those tasks are to be selected at the tender age of 12.” I wonder if the idea of different curriculum tracks still suffers by association with that taint.

  4. “Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly color. I’m so glad I’m a Beta.”
    – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Ch.2

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Not sure what the Huxley quote is aid of.
    The various variants were bred to be what they were, as a matter of social policy. Without a terrific mistake in the breeding tubes, an Epsilon wasn’t going to be able to do the work of any other class.
    If the quote is to reproach us for thinking that not everybody can, or wants to, achieve a dumbed-down BA in the social sciences, light on the stat, it fails pretty conclusively.
    Thing is, we don’t have a single scale of intelligence, in which IQ is directly correlated to cumulative classroom seat time.
    You know all the different intelligences some folks are forever going on about? Yeah, those.
    Well, if you use them to insist we need more programs and more money, then they must exist, right? I knew you wouldn’t like that idea. But they do, or you couldn’t use them, to demand more programs and money. So you’re stuck with them.
    And you can’t judge one as being superior to another, either. Tough about that.
    So, a good skilled trades guy–to use the Flint/GM model with which I am familiar–is a bright, bright guy. Just doesn’t care to sit in classes listening to a bored grad student introduce him to sociology theory. Or Angry Studies. He has a different intelligence. And it works for him. But it does not employ professors. Tough about that, too. Actually, my sympathy meter is broken, so I don’t know how I feel about that. Or maybe I do.
    Anyway, there is a problem. If you’re not a pretty bright guy, you aren’t going to be good in skilled trades, either.
    The guy who does our remodeling, which was substantial when we moved in, knows everything about home construction. Not up to being a sophomore with an undeclared major, I know, but still not too shabby. And he’s a good businessman. And he knows a surprising amount about design. He can hear somebody say, “That brings out the red, makes it really pop,” without laughing out loud. Better man than I. And he’s a great people person, in that he does not annoy the paying customer. And he’s reliable. Not up to a college junior majoring in Queer Theory, of course, but somebody has to do the work.
    Spent some time in a laborers’ union hall a while back. The entry way walls were covered with posters for various schools. Two days with a whatchamacallit generator. A day and a half with a suchandsuch compressor. Each cert increased the guy’s employability. Thing about this stuff is, you have to get it right. Messing up on a blue book test never blew something up and killed anybody. Getting something turned around on a computer scored test form never ruined $50k worth of concrete work which had to be redone.
    Said this before: Had a htg/plbg guy over to the house to fix the A/C. Turns out we had a box elder bug in some contact or other. While he fixed that, and built a box elder-bug-proof shield, we talked about this and that. He and his daughter ride both dressage and western. Kind of fun, I guess. Wouldn’t know. Point is, he can afford the horses, the land, and the upkeep and the training. Not up to entry-level pharmacy sales, but you do what you can.
    But he has to be smart as well–different intelligences–and those who aren’t bright in some way simply aren’t going to do as well as those who are. Using a hydraulic pump model of education and forcing a BA down somebody isn’t going to make them smart and the dumbing down necessary to get most people thus qualified is going to reduce the value of the BA.
    What’s so hard about this?

  6. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Actually, most of the tradesmen I know COULD get a BA, if they had to. They’d be miserable, they’d be bored, and they’d be cranky, but they could do it if their kids’ lives’ were on the line. They’d just rather pursue their interests and focus on their talents.

    Sort of like if you forced me to learn auto repair. I could do it with time and effort, but it’s not where my strengths and talents are.

    So we have several problems here– 1. How to serve students who are smart, but interested in working with their hands


    2. How to serve the kids who literally CAN”T learn plumbing or auto repair, and who would find “cashier” a mentally challenging job….


    3. How to serve the kids who might have the capability to learn a skilled trade, but don’t care because they’re lazy and expect to be GIVEN a high paying job just because they have a pulse?

    Back when there were actual trade schools, they were pretty hard to get into. And around here, if you want to be a machinist, you have to be able to handle at least Trig. (which is why skilled machinists are paid well AND hard to find…)

    I wonder if part of the problem now is that a lot of the kids who would have worked their way up on the Machine floor to engineer (Like my Grandfather did, and like several friends’ dads did) now have to go to engineering school first, because HS degree no longer signifies anything other than “probably has a pulse…”

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Well put, if you like posts without attitude. However….
    You might like, or not, a youtube called “redleg rumba”. In fact, I think you can get it without going to youtube first. I believe I’ve done it both ways.
    This is how real men do ballet.
    The gun captain–who is a sergeant–is responsible for a great deal. He has to know the gun inside and out. Ditto the ammo. Its performance in extreme cold and heat. He is responsible for supplies like spare hydraulic parts and fluid and rammers. He is responsible for training the crew. He is responsible for setting up the gun and taking it down when they’re ready to move. He has to be prepared to work the gun when casualties reduce the crew–which involves extra training.
    If he does his job right, he is a great help to the grunts. If he screws up, he kills some grunts.
    His attention to detail and his attention span on matters of hugely boring repetition are scary.
    “Oh, he’s just in the military.”
    I’m afraid there isn’t much for folks who can barely cashier except cashiering, and there isn’t much for folks who expect a pulse to be sufficient instead of just necessary.
    ‘But let’s send them all to college.

  8. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Thanks for the pointer— I found it at Blackfive, and my three year old son thought it was the most awesome video he’d ever seen. (My 8 year old daughter was impressed with how much “smarter” the modern artillery is than the stuff from the civil war. (rear instead of front loading.)

    But yes, same point– actually, I’ve met a lot of guys who struggled in HS and got by with C’s, and then took harder classes in the military and aced them. Why? Because in the military there is no busy-work, no downtime, no posters and no collages. You learn the stuff, you master it, you start using it, and you move on.

    It turns out that it wasn’t the material that was holding these guys back–it was all the other fluff that goes into “High School Education.” So a guy who could read, understand, and argue about the newspaper would barely pass “current events” because he didn’t want to keep an illustrated journal of his feelings on the articles.

    In fact, it’s kind of funny, because when the liberals shut down the trade programs as ‘racist,’ they basically turned the military into trade school— it’s where guys go to learn a useful trade (helicopter repair, electrician, mechanic, etc.) — they just get to contribute to the US “global hegemony” while they do it……

  9. The military is incredibly efficient about training all kinds of people to do all kinds of jobs. However, it is able to start with aptitude tests; those useful measures essentially outlawed by the USSC Duke Power decision. They identify which kids have aptitudes for the jobs they need done and then the military – all branches -teach them how to do them. It’s all done by direct instruction; this is what we are going to learn today, teach the material, summarize it, test to make sure students have learned it and move on to the next step.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    Yeah, as to ASVAB or whatever they call it today.
    Thing is, something under half of the appropriate age cohort qualifies to get in at all. Much of it is physical–too much couch potatoing–but some of it is academic deficiencies and some lack of motivation, although since you have to show up at the recruiter’s shop, I guess the last category self-selects out.

  11. Lightly Seasoned says:

    You don’t have to show up. They recruit right from the high school cafeteria.

  12. many confuse: “send them to college” with “have them ready for college” There is every reason to have the carpenter and welder proficient in a second language, math et al.

    there are few reasons to pick an adult’s career trajectory at age 13.

  13. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Chris– but is “proficient” the same thing as “everyone must take APs?” My HS had actual vocational classes and required a certain level of math and foreign language for a diploma—- but the 16 year old who wanted to be a mechanic could also take auto shop, there was a real electronics program, etc. etc.

    Under “college-ready for all” the shop closed and electronics became “marketing”. The issue isn;t that we’re denying kids a chance to have the skills they need for a career, its that we’re trapping kids who have those skills into the academic route and wasting their time when they COULD be learning a trade or serving an apprenticeship.

    Somehow “give everyone a shot at college” has become “force everyone to prepare for the same future.” It’s as unfair as forcing a kid to become a cooper just because his dad was one, when he really wants to go to school and become a clerk— just unfair in the opposite direction…..

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    My wife is a retired language teacher. My daughter is a non-retired language teacher. I scored pretty high on the Army’s language aptitude test. I’ve been exposed to, or have studied Spanish, French, Latin, and Vietnamese.
    The idea that one can wave a hand and make everybody proficient in a language is delusional. Same in math. The subjects will have to be dumbed down until even the least motivated, least talented individual can pass, and then passing and “proficient” won’t be related.

  15. Bill Leonard says:

    Chris, I’d much prefer any carpenter or welder that I need to hire for serious work (projects that require a building or other permit, for example) be proficient in carpentry or welding, as well as the permitting process, than that he or she know anyting about French (or Urdu) verb conjugation.


  16. Michael E. Lopez says:


    You’re imagining things if you think that even most people who make it to French III in High School actually remember how to conjugate verbs.

  17. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I remember enough of my HS Spanish to be able to sort of communicate with someone who doesn’t speak English, if I keep it present tense and am willing to take the time….

    HS languages are pretty much a joke– you can cram for the quizzes, make up skits, and coast by just learning the vocab and ignoring much of the grammar.

    It wasn’t just that they didn’t prepare me for college-level language (Greek and Latin)– they actually HURT me, by giving me the idea that I wouldn’t have to work hard! (Luckily the professors quickly corrected that!)

    Letting kids coast through ‘college prep’ courses is more harmful than not offering the classes in the first place, IMO.